A Comedy of Errors

Sometimes we find a problem with news stories we read. Occasionally we find two in the same piece. But Carson Walker of the Associated Press hits the trifecta with his story today about a speech given by Vice President Dick Cheney at a fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Rep. John Thune. Look out for three slip-ups, two of them major:

The country was in a recession when he and Bush took office, said Cheney. And the nation was just recovering when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

The attack forced difficult choices. And none was more important than to “ensure the citizens of this great country are safe and secure,” Cheney said.

Democrat John Kerry, Bush’s likely opponent in November, has said he doubted the need for war. But smaller repeated attacks on the United States in the 1990s showed the nation needed to respond forcefully after Sept. 11, Cheney said.

“Nine-11 changed everything. Its awful toll made it clear that law enforcement was not enough. War had been declared on this country and war is what they got,” he said.

Cheney cited successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both have new constitutions, and said Kerry’s position on the war will be part of the campaign.”

Problem 1: Cheney didn’t say that. Here’s what Cheney actually said:

One side argues that we should treat attacks on our nation by terrorists primarily as matters for law enforcement and intelligence. That’s what the Democratic nominee for President has said, among many other things. (Laughter.) In fact, several days ago, Senator Kerry said he wasn’t even comfortable calling this a war. He said, “I don’t want to use that terminology.” John Kerry has embraced the strategy of the 1990s, which holds that when we are attacked, we ought to round up the guilty parties and put them on trial.

When Cheney said, “Kerry said he wasn’t even comfortable calling this a war,” what he clearly meant was that Kerry doesn’t see the war on terror in general as a war. Walker wrongly implies that Cheney said Kerry has expressed doubts about the need to launch a specific war. So the AP badly mischaracterizes Cheney’s point.

Problem 2: Walker tells us that Cheney claimed Kerry “has said he doubted the need for war.” (At first that appears to be a flat assertion of fact by AP, but in context, it may be that it’s intended as a paraphrase of Cheney’s remarks.)

It’s unclear which war Cheney, as paraphrased by Walker, is referring to. Kerry has indeed expressed doubts (lately) about the need for war in Iraq, though he’s never publicly questioned the need for war in Afghanistan or the war on terror in general. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the AP story.

Problem 3: Even as Walker distorted what Cheney said, Cheney was distorting Kerry’s comments. Here are the comments that Cheney was referring to, which come from an interview with Kerry by The New York Times:

The war on terror depends on the most unprecedented cooperation in American history, the thing they’re worst at. The final victory in the war on terror depends on a victory in the war of ideas, much more than the war on the battlefield. And the war — not the war, I don’t want to use that terminology. The engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity of a whole bunch of countries that have been avoiding the future. And that future’s coming at us like it or not, in the context of terror, and in the context of failed states, and dysfunctional economies, and all that goes with that.

In short, when Kerry said, “I don’t want to use that terminology,” he was referring to “the economic transformation” that he was about to talk about. He has already in the interview used the terms “the war on terror” and “the war of ideas” and “the war on the battlefield” in the same sentence, without correcting himself, and has used the phrase “war on terror” countless times in other places. (The president pulled the same trick as Cheney yesterday at a fundraiser in Houston, saying, “Just the other day, my opponent indicated that he’s not comfortable using the word war to describe the struggle we’re in. He said, ‘I don’t want to use that terminology.’”)

To say, as Cheney did, that “Kerry said he wasn’t even comfortable calling this a war” is a distortion, and one that the Walker should have called him on.

But perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to have done so, since he didn’t even get what Cheney said right in the first place.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.